After the March 2019 fall of Baghuz, the last stronghold of the Islamic State (ISIS) in Syria, more than 20,000 non-Iraqi or Syrian members of the group surrendered to coalition forces. Males were separated from their family members and imprisoned, while females and young children were moved to camps for displaced people. Although both groups have been in custody for more than a year, many home governments of foreign fighters still have not decided their fate.
There is a lot of discussion in media, policy circles and government regarding what to do about these so-called fighters and their affiliates, but the opinion of the fighters themselves is often absent from this discussion. And although the Islamic State members themselves could be perpetrators of one crime or another, their opinions and the rationale behind them should not be ignored. Keeping the grievances and opinions of these people in mind is important particularly if policymakers are looking further into the future, focusing not just on near-term counterterrorism trials but also on deradicalization and preventing the group from remerging.
Surprisingly, the opinions of fighters and their affiliates are as diverse as those of experts and policymakers. Some Islamic State affiliates think “all males who still support ISIS should be executed” while others argue that the “majority should be pardoned.”
While some affiliates think that only men should be held accountable for what the group did, others think that it is in fact females who should be punished more. And while some approach such crimes as Yazidi enslavement from the more Western legal system and think that everyone involved in it should be held culpable, others still think that the enslavement was acceptable because it is allowed by Sharia law.
So to understand their positions, and the reasoning behind them, I conducted interviews with a focus group of western Islamic State women who are in a camp in Northern Syria and whose husbands are incarcerated.
The focus group members are not a representative sample. The group excludes those who still support the Islamic State and do not want to return to their home countries. Those who still fervently support the group either did not agree to be interviewed or did not have informative responses. According to this group, the Islamic State was following Sharia law and, as a result, was just and legitimate. These adherents also claimed that their fellow Islamic State members would ultimately break them out of custody, and the women made threats to prison authorities and western governments.
I’ve had a lot of experience trying to understand the perspectives of women in the Islamic State. Over the past year I have been in contact with several dozens of foreign Islamic State women in camps in Northern Syria, and I selected this particular group of women for interviews because they represent different western countries where the debate about prosecution is the most acute and because they had varied reasons for not continuing to support the Islamic State. Some of the women became disappointed with the group because they thought it was not fair to its members, and some women withdrew their support because of the crimes the group committed against local civilians who argued that the Islamic State acted contrary to Islam.
All interviews were conducted by phone either in English (three of the women speak English fluently) or in Russian, in which case I translated them. What follows is an introduction of the women and direct quotes from their interviews with light modifications for clarity.
Who Are the Women?
Kimberly is an American and Canadian dual citizen who converted to Islam. She came to Syria with her Somali husband who was a recruiter and member of Amni (Islamic State internal security). She came to Syria to work as a nurse and worked in the hospital in Raqqa. In her account, her husband lured her to Syria saying that she would be free to leave any time, but it was not true. She tried to escape 11 times, and when she got caught, the group imprisoned her. She finally escaped the group in January 2019. She is currently in Roj camp, and her husband is in prison in Hasakah.
Umm David is a Russian whose die-hard Islamic State supporter husband from Azerbaijan was also a member of Amnia. He has been missing since the battle in Baghuz (he sent her a voice message on the last day of the battle, indicating that he was still alive, so there is a high chance that he is in prison in Hasakah). She was also an avid supporter of the group and wanted to stay with it until death, but her husband forced her and their children to surrender to the Syrian Democratic Forces, who now operate the camps and the prisons in Northern Syria. She reports growing disillusioned with the Islamic State while in al-Hol camp. According to her, there she realized that the Islamic State did not follow Sharia law and its leadership are not true Muslims, which she thought was the main reason why the Islamic State lost the war.
Umm Abdallah is a Belgian citizen of Moroccan origin who came to Syria alone. She married her French husband of Tunisian origin in Raqqa. They report growing disappointed in the Islamic State after seeing that it was not fair to its members and did not respect their rights. For example, when her husband stopped working for the group, it tried to evict the couple from their house. They attempted to escape several times but were not successful because of a lack of money. After stopping his work for the group to support the family, her husband was selling food in the market in Raqqa. She is currently in Roj camp in Syria. Her husband was transferred from prison to Iraq and sentenced to death, one of 11 French male fighters who met the same fate in a series of trials that sparked widespread criticism directed at the French government.
Umm Sa’ad came to Syria from the Netherlands. She explained that she became disappointed in the Islamic State soon after arriving in Syria when she saw how the group treats its members. In particular, she was disgusted with the group’s approach to women—in the caliphate, women basically had no rights—and with the group’s human rights abuses of local populations (such as the Yazidi genocide). She tried to escape but was not successful. She is also in Roj camp, and her husband is in prison in Hasakah.
Here are excerpts from my interviews with the women.
Who Is to Blame for ISIS Actions and Crimes?
Kimberly: I think the fingers should be pointed in many directions regarding blame. The better question is, “Why was ISIS allowed to flourish?” The West has a huge amount of power. They could have stopped them. The loss of human life would have been epic … but it was anyways, just drawn out for years.
Also, inside the group I am inclined to say that anyone who did not resist ISIS, who was not thrown in [ISIS] prison, who willingly or eagerly took positions in ISIS that harmed others (like leadership and Amnia), need to be looked at carefully.
Umm Abdallah: I am not a judge but I know that some men really did not do anything bad. Of course, some fought and some worked in Hisbah [ISIS religious police], but the fighting that ISIS did was accepted to countries—when they left and when they came to fight [Syrian President] Bashar [al-Assad]. It was a good thing for them that foreign fighters came here. Turkey also accepted that ISIS fought the Kurds. I understand now why ISIS propaganda was not forbidden on [the] internet and [anti ISIS] coalition countries let ISIS take so much territory. I do not defend anyone, but I think that we were a little blind to not understand what was happening here.
Umm Sa’ad: In addition to what the group did to civilians, it is important to think that they did the same for its members. For example they forced men to be fighters, imprisoned people on false accusations of being “spy” or “takfiri” [considering Islamic State members to be non-Muslims]. They also kept women and children under siege as human shields and did not let them leave the group safely. It was the case in Mosul, Tal Afar and other areas.
Umm David: Top leadership is guilty for what ISIS did and so are all those idiots who came because they loved violence and money (such as ex-drug addicts, former inmates and criminals) and thought that in Syria they could loot and kill openly. There were people who just wanted to kill no matter whom.
How Should Male Islamic State Members Be Punished?
Umm Abdallah: They are already in prison, and those prisons are worse than all other prisons, so should they be more punished? None deserves to be in prison with such bad conditions and be tortured.
When I think about all the torture and bad treatment that they go through, I can never say they must go back to prison for 10 years, for example. They are already punished, and they are already destroyed. I think after all this bad treatment, they could be free. [The] majority already paid for what they did. They are humans who deserve a second chance.
Kimberly: I think that many men did [bad] stuff, but I also feel that many wanted but could not get out. Members of Amnia should be punished for certain. With fighters they should be careful—case by case. Fighting when there is a war—it is kind of kill or be killed. It does not mean every fighter wanted to fight or even really had a choice.
There are many different stories, and each one needs to be reviewed individually by the government of the foreign fighter’s home country. I think every single person in ISIS needs to be questioned a lot. Home countries should be looking for people who are perfectly comfortable harming others and worked actively doing so.
And [the fighters] should serve their sentence in their home countries. Some of us believe in teaching, not torture [as is common in Iraq]. And a prison in the West is still very much a loss of personal freedom. It just allows for humanity and education. [The] Netherlands gives like 6 years for joining ISIS. I think it makes more sense. It is harsh but 6 years is doable, especially since years have already been done here by many.
Umm David: Do you imprison everyone participating in all wars? No, so what is the difference here? You have to divide those who are pro-ISIS and those who are against ISIS.
Those who do not support ISIS anymore could go to prison for a short time. No more than 3 years, because the longer they are in prison, the angrier they would be after they get out. They understand that ISIS is garbage and there was no point in coming here. So, they are not dangerous.
Those men who still support the group should be killed. They are dangerous. It is also important what exactly the person did while in ISIS. If he was in Amni, he is also dangerous. So you have to have very good psychologists working with the fighters. In fact, good psychologists have to work with all of them. Maybe all ex-ISIS should actually go through a psychiatric hospital instead of prison.
Umm Sa’ad: The ones who committed genocide, killings, rape and so on should get the highest prison sentence that exists in the country they are from, or consistent with international law. There is no death sentence in Europe, so the sentence should be life in prison.
Amnia killed many innocent people. If it is proven that a particular member of Amnia killed people, he should be punished. Fighters on the battlefield are a different case because not all of them killed people. Some of them were Syrians who were fighting against Bashar [al-Assad].
On the other side, there should be clear exceptions. For example, some people who came here from Holland had a medical file before they left [indicating that] they were mentally unstable. Some others were forced to come here and so on.
Also, in general, it is better if regular members get into rehabilitation than prison. I believe that most of us who came to ISIS were running away from something back home. Punishing them is useless. Teaching them and giving an alternative is better.
ISIS Foreign Female Members
Umm Abdallah: Some women just followed their husbands, some came to change their lives because they believed in ISIS propaganda. If the [home] country gives them the chance to explain everything, [the country] will know what to do with them. [Home countries] need to understand why some people came here and why some people really regret doing so. Maybe some [women] did bad things, but personally I have never seen women fight.
There were Amnia members who tortured people and that is very bad. And if you were a good person, you would not accept what they were doing and [would have chosen to] just leave [Amnia]. But all depends on why a particular person was there and what was his goal. I could not give you a general answer and every case is different.
Kimberly: Definitely not all females should be free. It should be decided case by case. For example, members of Amnia should be punished, those who openly recruited, and those who still openly support ISIS. Also, those who stayed till the end [with the group in Baghuz] need to be looked at very carefully. They need to be questioned a lot. Reputations of fighters within ISIS were known [to other ISIS members and governments]. I think the countries know who they should be concerned about. Who did what, who was known and why, and who is still pro ISIS. On the other side, I think being a wife [of an ISIS member] does not make you bad. In ISIS, most wives were like prisoners too.
Umm Sa’ad: Almost all the women I know were housewives. Some were teachers, but what I heard is that they taught from regular books such as Nuur al Bayaan, which is commonly taught in the Arab world. Other women were nurses. I hear that in Raqqa there was a female Hisbah [religious police] department, but I do not know anyone there.
But if a particular female was a member of Hisbah or Amnia and harmed or killed people, she should be charged with a crime. Amnia who killed should be locked up behind bars for a very long time. But if they were only telling women to cover their eyes [the Islamic State considered it unacceptable for a woman to have her eyes visible to men], then they [should] not be punished for more than being just a member of ISIS, being on their payroll.
Umm David: I think women are more dangerous than men. Women who still support ISIS should go to prison for around 8 years [longer than men]. … [T]hey are still dangerous, and if [they are] not in prison they will feel no accountability and will continue [their behavior]. I feel like all this ISIS propaganda of killing and hate gets deeper into women’s brains than into men’s brains. In particular, those who were members of Amnia and those who were fighting themselves (if they survived) should be isolated.
Also, their children should be taken from them. Even older boys who are now actively supporting ISIS would stop doing so if not under the influence of their ISIS-supporting mothers, who teach them to hate and kill.
Umm Abdallah: If you read about slavery in Islam, you will feel something different from what you heard in ISIS. In Islam, slaves have many rights and nothing can be forced on them. They eat the same food as the owner, have good clothes and are treated well. The goal of the slavery is to invite them to become Muslim and not to hate Islam. In ISIS, it was not like that with slaves. And of course, women who did bad things to slaves should be punished because [that conduct] is a crime.
Kimberly: I feel like many women in ISIS were treated as slaves. ISIS women were often treated the same, day to day or even worse in some cases. Many wives in ISIS were abused, some horrifically. I still see images of those women when I close my eyes. Abuse happens everywhere … just in ISIS the women had nowhere to go. But Yazidis went through genocide and they need justice. We need to send a message that human slavery in not okay. And ISIS women have to realize that too.
Each case about Yazidi should be looked at separately. For example, my second husband could not stand it. When he heard about it, he got upset. But my first husband talked about lots of gatherings where Saudis offered them [Yazidi slaves] to him.
Umm David: Those who participated in capturing Yazidi slaves should not be punished because if an Amir gave an order they had to follow it. There was no way for them to refuse and still be alive.
Those who bought and owned slaves should not be punished since it is allowed by Sharia law. And it is a mistake to assume that sabayas [Yazidi slaves] were mistreated. In many families, they were really taken care of very well. But of course those who mistreated them should be punished.
Umm Sa’ad: Those who were involved in enslaving Yazidis should be punished. Those who bought them should be also punished. I think they should be punished [the] same way as people who are involved in human trafficking.
When we first heard about slaves, we did not believe it and thought that it was only anti-Muslim propaganda, but then some people said that they saw them. It was terrible.
How Dangerous Are Islamic State Members?
Umm Abdallah: People become radical because they are in very bad conditions. They do not see any perspective, and they have nothing to lose. And maybe some need medical help.
I am not worried about those people being free, only if they are dangerous because they have psychological problems.
Kimberly: I think members of Amnia are the most dangerous. It is something that in the future would be a warning for me. If someone was Amnia in ISIS, I feel they are some of the worst. I think they have to eventually be released but be extensively monitored.
In fact, I think everyone in ISIS needs to be monitored including me. I am scared when I think of how my ex-husband manipulated me so thoroughly. I wish they [authorities] had known before to step in and help me. I was really vulnerable and needed help.
Umm Sa’ad: If women are die-hard ISIS supporters they could be dangerous. But bringing them home and helping them is the first step to proving to them that [the] ISIS narrative is incorrect. Bringing all women home under the radar is the safest option. How dangerous can someone be with an ankle bracelet and/or house arrest or being in prison? In Europe I am sure that the intelligence services would be on top of it.
Umm David: Those who still support ISIS are dangerous. and I would be worried if they are walking free near my children. Those females who support ISIS should never be returned home. [For Islamic State-supporting women], if there was an attractive ISIS guy who told them to kill themselves, they would do so. They are very dangerous. And I do not know what to do with them. They should probably be very carefully checked by psychologists.
I also think they would be spreading their ideology. In particular, it would be a problem not in towns but in small villages (where the majority of them actually come from). There they could soon radicalize the whole village.
Justice and the Future
Kimberly: Everyone should go back to the countries they came from. Except for Egypt, Saudi Arabia, [and other countries with limited due process protections] because [receiving the] death penalty for just coming to ISIS is not okay.
Most of the sentencing against ISIS members won't be fair. The reason is the fear factor, the lack of legal precedent and the political ramifications involved. Like Iraq, for example, is hardly reasonable [in their sentencing]. And [Iraq’s] really long sentences just breed extremism.
You cannot stop the new ISIS. It is still here, still strong, and Western European countries’ treatment of Muslims, [with] hijab bans and so on, fuel this. But the treatment of ISIS prisoners now is also not helping. It is proving that “the kuffar [non-Muslims] hate you.” But foreign countries can at least repatriate us. Let the children have a normal life. When you can work, be part of the society, feel values, I think you are less likely to leave the society or deattach from it [join anti-society groups].
Umm Sa’ad: Everyone should be returned home because there are neither human rights nor prisoner rights [at the camps and prisons in Iraq and Syria]. ISIS members did their crimes not only on locals but on muhajireen [foreign ISIS members] as well. [Foreign fighters] could be sentenced here, but then in prison they would be subjected to human rights violations and physical and mental torture. How is it better than ISIS? So a possible solution is to get [tried and] sentenced here but serve [the prison sentence] in their home countries.
Everyone deserves a second chance, and that is all we ask for. We made a big mistake [coming here], and we have realized that. We have been through hell and back to try to get out of ISIS. We survived both the coalition airstrikes and escaping from ISIS security forces.
Umm David: I was born in Russia and am a Russian citizen. And to be honest, I do not know any other reasons for them to take us [other than that we are citizens]. We did not do any crimes in Syria and Iraq. We made a mistake and ask to be taken back, and those who still support ISIS and did not accept that they made a mistake should remain.
Umm Abdallah: Home countries should take us back because, first, it is our right (even if I feel that we have no rights). Not everyone in ISIS burned their passports and supported attacks in the home country. And second, they must take us back because if they let people remain here it would make it worse. It would increase terrorism and lead to new attacks. And the situation in Iraq and Syria is already not stable. Just think, where was Abu Bakr Baghdadi before becoming a caliph? Prison in Iraq.
And conditions in prisons here are not acceptable. And that is the reason why the home government let them be here. There [in home-country prisons] fighters would have their own room with a toilet, water, food and good treatment. So according to foreign countries, [European prisons are] not punishment. Also if they would be judged and sentenced at home, one day they would be out and countries do not want that.
Some women have been here for 3 years, and they have arrest warrants back home. Their counties found them [here], but they prefer to let them become more radical in the camp. It is not a solution at all. The best is to take everyone to their own countries and show that they are better than ISIS …. But until now [European countries have] just shown that they are worse than ISIS … even in ISIS you deserve [a] “second chance.” I saw in my country the pedophile who killed children get a second chance.
Female Islamic State members have diverse opinions about what should be done with their brothers and sisters in arms currently in Syrian Democratic Forces or Iraqi custody. While some women think that those linked with the group already paid the price of joining the group and could be safely released, others think that those affiliated with the Islamic State should be imprisoned and get psychological treatment.
At the same time, all four women I interviewed agreed that they are particularly concerned about group members who worked in Amni, the Islamic State’s internal security. According to the women, those people should be punished for what they did to the civilian population and other members of the group who did not agree with Islamic State policies. In addition, the women cautioned that former Amni members should be watched closely by Western governments because they could be dangerous in the future.